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The Darker Side of Corn

hweet-lahuitlacoche+friendsh-KOH-chay

also: cuitlacoche or xuitlacoche

When the milpas become ready for harvest… the corn (maiz), the vines of beans that have wound around the corn stalks, the squashes that weave through the fields at the base, and the volunteer greens like verdolagas and quelites, that help keep the soil moist under the hot sun… so does the bastard child of the corn come ready for harvest too. Those cobs plagued with disease, a pathogenic fungus that invades the corn, replacing the normal kernels of the cobs with large bloated silvery  silvery-grey tumors: call it Corn smut, or ‘Devil’s Corn’… either way, in the North, it’s not been looked upon fondly.

Nothing short of a blight for corn farmers, in fact, often rendering 10% of a US harvest useless. But in Mexico, the Aztecs had long been enjoying this as a food. They call it huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche). Etymologically, there’s several possible meanings for this Nahuatl word, and the one that has had the most ‘hook’  is ‘raven’s excrement’, which may explain its dark mystique.

It’s amazing what a little re-branding can do; in the past 5 years or so, huitlacoche has been introduced to the gourmet market in the US, as the ‘Mexican Truffle’ – it’s a fungus, so that’s appropriate enough.. and it sure sounds better than ‘smut’ or ‘excrement’. But now that the vocabulary around Mexican cuisine is improving North of the Border,  ‘huitlacoche’ is claiming its right to be named as such in the food-lovers’ syntax.

How good can sticky black goo taste?

huitlacoche compared to size of hand
some of the galls can grow to be pretty big!

You’re asking me? I love it. The flavor is earthy, a little smoky (if you add a dash or two of mescal while it’s cooking, that brings out the smokiness). … at the same time, there are smooth undertones of vanilla and a bright fruitiness a bit like cherries. And there’s no denying its visual appearance, so dark and wicked. Texturally it’s interesting because where the galls have separated from the cob, you’ll get that chewy nuttiness like a kernel of corn has. Under heat, when the silvery membrane breaks open, the black spores start to soften, break down, almost liquify into a slick, smooth, almost oily mass of black goo.

Even though it’s delicious,  it’s oddly difficult to describe it in a way that is conventionally appetizing. Perhaps that’s best… we wouldn’t want Chipotle’s to get too excited about it!

 

cooking huitlacoche
Cook it long and slow til the galls break down completely

It’s not difficult to cook, and it doesn’t need much in the way of seasoning; like mushrooms, the flavor is best left to stand on its own.

Sautéed finely chopped onion until translucent, then add the huitlacoche. Be sure to pick the threads of corn silk out first! The key is to cook it long and slow on a low simmer adding as little liquid as possible as it cooks and allowing the spores to break down fully and unify into a nice, lumpy black puddle…perhaps dry white wine or mescal to deglaze the pan if you want to get fancy.

 

How to serve it without scaring anyone…

Yes, some people are funny about what they eat. Fussy. Let them miss out on this delicious experience… leaves more for you and me.

Traditionally, it’s at home in a taco. For heat, strips of roasted poblano chiles (rajas) , chipotle or another smokey cooked salsa. As a quesadilla or filling in any other corn masa based snack: sope, tlacoyo, huarache…

Zucchini stuffed with huitlacoche
A hollowed out calabacita makes room for huitlacoche.

But there’s no reason to be restricted to tradition!

Try using the huitlacoche as you might use mushrooms….

… over pasta, even in lasagna

…stuffing for chicken breasts

…as a sauce to accompany a steak (adding some smokey chile and pureeing it to a smooth creamy texture)

 

My most recent effort, here, takes a hollowed out calabacita (you can use regular zucchini) which I baked til it was tender, then filled it with the cooked huitlacoche I topped it with a creamy avocado guacamole which I seasoned with hoja santa) and that’s a pasilla salsa finishing it off. It was nice, and used up some of those calabacitas that ramble through the same milpas.

But where can I find it outside of Mexico?

First of all, I recommend you come to Mexico. Let a señora serve it to you atop a handmade tortilla that’s been cooked over a big metal barrel-cum-griddle…

Failing that, canned huitlacoche is really not a bad substitute for the fresh stuff and most authentic Latin markets will sell it. It’s not cheap, but it is intense, and goes a long way.

Or, you can see what happens if you grow your own corn… maybe you’ll get lucky and wind up with some smut instead, like my friend Steev did… read about that here, along with a recipe for his Squash blossom fritters stuffed with huitlacoche.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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